Sunday 7 April 2013

Smartmessages goes international

We've just rolled out a refresh of our user interface to match our forthcoming web site; We're using stronger, flatter colours, tighter spacing, bigger targets so it works better on mobile devices.

But there's something big under the new shininess...

We've made the switch to UTF-8.

Email is one of the last holdouts of 8-bit character sets, not least because they are usually more compact less complex and more reliable than other representations, an important property when all that's needed is a simple message. The ISO-8859-1 ("Latin 1") character set has long been the standard for email since it supports nearly everything that's needed in all of Western Europe, and it's what we (and many other email services) have been using for years. Problems begin to crop up when you need characters outside that range, a great example being the Euro symbol, €, which doesn't exist in that character set. There are some workarounds, like using HTML entities, but they are inelegant and don't work in plain text.
The UTF-8 encoding provides access to the full Unicode character set, and it's really the only sane choice for supporting multiple languages, though it takes more space and requires more processing power. We're supporting the full range of 4-byte characters, which covers all European languages, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Greek and many more, plus oodles of funny-shaped squiggles from notations you've never heard of, and (much more interestingly) full-colour Emoji characters (all subject to your recipients' operating system support). As yet we don't support right-to-left languages such as Arabic and Hebrew.

Unicode is available in any normal-text field, so mailing list names, templates, from names, subscriber properties, descriptions, branding elements etc are all up for it. Some special fields don't support unicode, in particular email addresses, so we don't let you use it anywhere it would break things. You don't need to do anything different, you can just type non-English characters and expect them to work.

One issue with UTF-8 content is not up to us - the tools you use need to be UTF-8 aware, so that means all you Luddites running Notepad on Windows XP need to get with the programme. Also note that all uploads and downloads are now using UTF-8 too.

Short version: you can now use any characters you like within Smartmessages.

This is a big change that opens up many possibilities for our service, but there are many corner cases that we may not have covered, so if you see any stray question marks, odd characters, or unexpected strings of garbage text, please let us know so we can find out what's up and fix it.

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